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Two Episodes in the Life of a Mental Health Professional photo

In Line at the Globetrotter’s Game

The man who used to be my husband wanted to hook up.  “Right here,” he said after parking our Nissan Sable in the road we used to live on and killing the headlights. In an instant, the narrow road vanished and the green dashboard lights stained us with romance. But I could not succumb to his touching. For whatever reason, I could not stop thinking about a neighbor’s car discovering us and spreading the news about the sight of our coupled bodies until the news reached and heart-attacked my Catholic mother. It took him a while to realize. “If you’re afraid of another car driving up on us,” he said, reading my mind: “It won’t.” He was probably right. But as he continued, I could not stop thinking about that other car. “You don’t believe me?” he said. Then, “I have lived in this house most of my life.” And finally, “I’ll prove it.” Then he pulled down our wooded driveway and rushed into the house and came out with a pillow. “I’m sleeping with my head in the road,” he told me. “I’m going to sleep right here and prove to you a car won’t drive down here all night,” he said, adjusting the pillow into the danger of the road, right where our wheels had been parked moment prior. Here, he looked up at me, daring me to allow him to hurt himself until. I went inside. That night was a sleepless one. I stared at the ceiling above our king-sized all night, waiting for the front door to open and for him climb into bed with me or for the squeal of tires. I imagined every scenario that could ever come to pass—what he’d say to me after climbing in with me, what I’d say to him, or the alternative of the sound of tires, his leg bones snapping, his bruised kidneys, punctured lungs, folded feet, his head popped like a ripe grape, and so on. Even after all these years, in line with Phil (another developmentally disabled man) for the concession stand at the Globetrotter’s game, I still find myself running through the could-haves. I still find myself wondering if I had done something different that night, just ever so slightly, and we would be happy somewhere—

Shit. Did Phil just order a large soda?

Indeed, Phil just ordered a large soda. Caffeinated, with no ice. His cheeks hallow while he takes a drag from the straw. It all happened so fast, I had no opening to discourage him, as I am required, to remind him that caffeine would only amplify his anxiety. My mind was somewhere else. Now what am I supposed to do: slap the soda from his hand? 

“Next!” the cashier says, and we push into the arena, through throng of legs and ketchup-y troughs of French fries. The seats are nose bleeds, naturally, given Lexington Home’s budget for birthday outings. And cramped—sitting down, our knees graze the backs of heads, and other knees graze the backs of our heads. A recipe for an attack of claustrophobic anxiety disaster, if there ever was one. Phil’s specialty.

“Are you going to be alright?” I say.

No answer.

Below us, the basketball players cycle through warmups—nailing three pointers, spinning off dunks, slicing the basketball through their legs—as a mascot dances in and out of them. This cartoonish globe that wears jean shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and sneakers with floppy laces he keeps tripping over. Whap! Whap! Whap! Faceplant after faceplant, the globe elicits the crowd’s laughter. But the returns are diminishing. Soon, the globe appears to be abusing itself for no reason at all. Even Phil has stopped laughing.

Phil sips at his soda, smiling. A buzzer slams. The game is about to start. Players tear off warmups, and the refs have appeared from somewhere else. A whistle flares, the tip ball tipped. And in a few short moments, the arena becomes nothing but basketballs and chirping sneakers, the audience’s rolling roar.

A three-point swishes. A player attempts to inbound the basketball, but then something unnatural happens—a defensive player holds his hand on his temple and points, stopping the basketball midair. Droning sci-fi music plays as he appears to be straining his mind.

Of course, I know, telekinesis is not possible. Of course, I know, the mind cannot bend space/time. But for a fraction of a second, via this trick I have not witnessed at any Globetrotter games, something as consistent as gravity becomes questionable.

Dregs of soda burble in the bottom of Phil’s cup. When I look, his hallowed cheeks continue to suck at the straw. He removes his lips, then belches softly. “All done.”

“Shit,” I say. “You drank all that already?”

Phil places the empty cup between his shoes. “You curse?” he says.  

A player starts breakdancing on the court. Then a trampoline is wheeled in/wheeled out, and a hip-hop song blasts. A tremor grabs at the concrete of the arena, vibrating my seat. Phil’s leg, I realize, is jackhammering up and down. A wobble of anxiety I recognize, one that would only grow wider.

Usually, when this wobble occurs, Phil will pace throughout the house. Usually, he will say, “Anxious, anxious,” over and over until I alleviate him with an Ativan. But the narcotics are back at the house, and I am entirely without any form of helping.

Meanwhile, Phil’s leg continues to pulverize the empty cup.

If I drank all that, I think, I would have to use the bathroom. If I drank all that, I would have to go right now. And how would that work? Phil, using the bathroom by himself? Would I follow? Wait? And if I did, would I leave from a different exit than the one he entered and dissolve into the crowd? Or worse: would he lock himself into one of the stalls? Would I have to then go in there and coax him out? Would he obey? Would security have to get involved? Do they carry tasers? I had not thought of any of that.

The flattened cup has disappeared as the scoreboard ticks toward the half. Forty-five seconds, thirty, fifteen… Would Phil want to use the bathroom once the buzzer sounded? And then what would happen after that?

The uncertainty of this bleeds into the arena’s chaos, into its myriad noises and smells. Its mad mass of roiling bodies and voices. All of its human possibilities. That these people have somehow driven here in cars, propelled by the intricacies of internal combustion engines, navigated by the mysterious internal combustion of their brains—all of it was birthed from some residue of the stars—the fact of this frazzles me. 

“There’s no way,” I say just as the buzzer buzzes the start of the half. 

“What was that?” Phil says, cupping his ear over the noise. And for a split moment, as he does this, the entire crowd reaches up with him. In unison, they cup their ears, too, trying to hear me, to understand. My sweat stings, my teeth itch, black UFOs creep in as I wait I for the lights to go out inside me of, for Phil to say: “Anxious, anxious—where in Christ’s name is my Ativan?” And anything seems possible.

Reality remains, however. And nothings irregular or traumastic happens—Phil stops cupping his ear and his leg stops bouncing, he doesn’t ask to go to the bathroom, the audience settles in for the second half, the third quarter turning into the fourth. Then there we are: shuffling out of the arena, down a switchback of escalators into the parking garage, which turns into me driving us home in the passenger van, back to Lexington Home, out of the darkness and into the bright of day.

Phil smiles at the side of my face. As we climb the hill by the capital, his smile hovers in the corner of my eye. “What a great birthday,” he says finally, and continues smiling at me as if awaiting my answer. “Wasn’t it?” he says after I pull into the driveway. He puts his hand on his temple, and concentrates at me, forcing me, until I agree that absolutely that’s the way it was. 

 

Peace in the Country

The assisted living house I pull up to looks like our assisted living house—a squat one-story vinyl with a switchback of wheelchair ramps, a lone passenger van parked askance in the cracked driveway desperate for tar.

I hesitate a moment after I park, hoping Melissa will notice the sounds of the cars washing by on the highway and realize the false hope of this new start. Maybe she would be dissuaded from moving out here, away from the Lexington Home branch I work at.

“Doesn’t the air smell fresher out here in the country?” she says.

If you decide to move here, you’ll actually be closer to the city center,” I say, helping her down.

“And all this sky!” Now Melissa shuffles off before I can loop my hand inside her gait belt. At an alarming clip, she moves up the graded wheelchair ramp as if she has forgotten that her knees are prone to buckle and there would be no need for any assistance at this assisted living house.

Her orthotic catches a nail that hasn’t been sufficiently pounded. She falters, barely catches herself, presses on toward the front door before the gasp even issues from my mouth.

The problem is: her arms are not strong enough and falling would constitute being dropped flat from a damaging height. For a moment, I wonder if her delusions might come crashing down with her body, if perhaps not helping might constitute helping here.

Maybe, I think. Maybe not.

I race to catch her, secure my hand in the gait belt. Reaching the door, I push the doorbell and the dingtone echoes throughout the house. “Get off, get off,” she says as we stand there, as we wait on the precipice of her potential new life. She swats and frowns at me until, finally, the doorknob’s rattle tightens a smile across her face.

The other aid blinks back at us—this stocky middle-aged woman with straw-blonde crushed beneath a bejeweled baseball cap. “You must be Melissa. Come in, come in,” she says and proffers up the foyer with a wave of her hand: A Goodwill table and lamp, peel-and-stick checkerboard tile, metal handrails adorning garish beige walls—the same as our house, more or less. 

Melissa steps inside, sniffs the air: “What that delicious smell?” she says.

“Fish Fiesta!” this other aid says, and introduces herself: “Allison!” 

“Yum,” Melissa says—actually says this! Despite Melissa having always hated Fish Fiesta. Despite every resident of every branch of Lexington Home I have ever encountered having always hated Fish Fiesta. The nutritionist who placed Fish Fiesta on the company-wide food calendar is a known sadist.

“Yum?” I say, unable to stop myself. 

Allison claps her hands, ignoring this, and as she leans down to address Melissa, like one might a small child or dog, a plastic jewel sparks pink off her hat: “Want to meet the other residents, then, sweetheart?”

And Melissa nods so enthusiastically I fear for her neck.

In the living room, we meet Peter and Samantha and Jesus and Liza. Liza is red-faced in a bathrobe, clutching a purse as if afraid of being robbed. Then there’s Jeffery, Cinthia, and Teddy—an elderly man with spread apart eyes and an unrelenting smile. There’s Peter—a helmeted middle-aged man on a pee pad—an uncanny double of our own Lexington Home residents, if there ever was one.

They murmur Hellos, take turns telling Melissa at varying speeds and linguistic abilities how much she will love living here. Just love it. Really love it. Just fucking love it so much. Until, one by one, their attention turns back to the TV: The same WWE wrestling program we would sometimes watch—

Except, no, never around dinnertime like this. Around dinnertime, I do what any true mental health professional should do: Make the residents help cook and plate the food and set the table to encourage their independence. I will not allow sloth to atrophy their lives.

I do not mean to judge Allison. But the fact is mental health professionals are not compensated much, therefore the profession attracts two types: the bleeding hearts who live this life, or the unskilled laborers who take little pride. And I cannot help but peg her as of the latter class.

“Hey,” Allison says. “Hand me those oven mitts over there, willya?”  We are in the kitchen now—another uncanniness of yellowing vinyl countertops, wooden cabinets, and splattered microwave. In the living room, the residents remain fixated on the TV. “They’re just right there on the side of the fridge,” she says.  

“Isn’t there someone else who should be helping you with this?” 

With a sigh, Allison reaches around me, plucks the oven mitt from a plastic magnet hook tacked. Removes a sizzling plate of tilapia filets from the rusty oven then spatulas grey filets the plastic plate for the residents with unrestricted diets.

“It’s more efficient this way,” she tells me.

“For who?”

“For everyone,” she says and nods at a blender. “Now would you blend the rest of these please? Your visit already has me behind schedule.” Then she sticks a mixer into a pot of boiled potatoes, begins mixing, her hat jerking sparks of colored light everywhere.

Instead of pressing the issue, I puree the saltless grey chunks of store-bought tilapia a little whiter with some mayonnaise. I scrape the mixture with a rubber spoon for the puree-diet residents onto plastic plates. I set the table, framing each with rubber utensils and a laminated dietary restriction/photo ID.

“Dinner!” Allison calls.  

There are the usual complaints from the residents—it’s too flaky, too bony, too dry, too undercooked. The usual responses: “What do you want me to do?” And the usual retorts, “Buy some salt!” Except, tonight, Melissa’s voice is not among the chorus. Tonight, Melissa clears her plate and forks the leftover fish bones into the garbage and asks if Allison needs any help.

Once upon a time, I could have said: “Melissa, of course, there will still be the chores requirements and bed checks and pill times that you so often complain constrict the freedom of your young life.” We were close once: baking sugar-free cookies and trading outfits, dancing the Macarena at the Lexington Home dance. “You’re not like the others aids,” she once said under those swirling lights. But then, the closeness grew too close, became a rubbing. I have become the focal point for all her blame and spite.

“No thanks, Melissa. I don’t mind doing the dishes myself,” Allison answers.

“For Christ sake!” I cannot stop myself.  

“What’s that?”

Thinking fast, I point at a bottle of Ensure on the counter: “I said, whose meal is that?”

Allison snaps on a pair of yellow rubber gloves and nods off down a dark hallway that branches off the kitchen. “For Little Mary.” 

“Little Mary?”

“I’ll introduce you,” she says, grinning slightly into the stacks of crusty dishes piled in the sink, like there is something crucial I do not know yet: “If you’re still willing to help out, dinner isn’t over yet.” 

After Melissa settles back in with the other residents, I follow Allison down the hallway. From a cracked door yellow light spills across a thinly carpeted floor. A sickly hue, I soon learn stepping into the small room, that radiates from a hospital lamp covered with a sheet craning over a small, sleeping body.

Allison clacks down the safety bars, sits. She tears the sheet off with a snap that fill the room with clarifying light. “Wake up, Little Mary,” she sing-songs.

And there on the mattress, in the highest of definitions, writhes Little Mary—a feverish child with oxygen taped to her throat, or a shrunken effigy of an adult, the scrunched agony on her face obscures any telling. It is a tableau that suggests its history at a glance: the erasure of both parents via some accident, or drug habit, a combination of both, that left Little Mary the sole survivor, cursed to live as a vegetable at this Lexington Home. The worst type of tragedy, no doubt.

But for Allison, it is just Tuesday. Placing a peg into the stoma that has been drilled into Little Mary’s gut, she pours some of the Ensure into the G-tube without ceremony. She pours in a little more. The chalky liquid drains slowly. We are going to be here for a while.

I can feel her watching me watch her. “Does she ever wake up from this?” I say.

Allison shakes her head, smiles a small sad smile, then begins the work of removing the PEG from Little Mary’s stomach: wiping away the Ensure that leaked onto her gut and rebandaging the pink rind with pearly gauze. And just as I am thinking how glad I am that dinnertime has finally ended, she turns to me:

“Now you can help me with her sponge bath.” 

On the ride home, Melissa continues her talking as we pass the sports bars and used car lots, the cell phone stores and corporate offices—the same discrepancies I hoped might dissuade Melissa from moving out here on the drive out, to inform her this new house would not boast any more “country” than the one she has already got.

“Are you even listening to me?”  Melissa says. 

“Of course,” I lie. And as we nudge our way toward the highway, Melissa resumes outlining the joys of her new potential life: the Fish Fiesta and uncapped skies, the fresh air that fluttered the drapes during the wrestling match. And about how nice Allison was. How nice the other residents were. And, oh yeah, did she mention the Fish Fiesta? Melissa’s not needing me anymore does not hurt anymore, though, now that I have Little Mary. Before me, she hovers a few feet above the windshield—Christ-like and backlit by flaming golden light above the traffic.

“Can you stop smiling like that please?” Melissa says.

Not realizing I was, I try and cinch down my upper lip. But the silliness behind this request for not smiling—all this petty bickering of late—only widens the smile wider. I pose the question to Little Mary: Why does any of this matter? And Little Mary responds: You’re one of the luckiest people in the world, she says without even moving her puckered mouth. You have known the sensation of moving through this life equipped with a consciousness to enjoy it.

“I’m sorry, Melissa,” I say, stifling a laugh.

Melissa gives me a confused look. Then the look slips and, just like that, she resumes talking. As the headlights churn the white line of the interstate, she continues to tell me what she has been telling me for weeks: “I’m over living with you in that house!” Through which, I nod to let her know I am listening. Even after her praise turns to misgiving, which begin a litany of what she did not like about the place—there were the foreign smells and the way the autistic old man self-stimulated by knocking a frayed toothbrush against his face, and the elevated volume of the TV hurt her ears—I oppose nothing.

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